After six months of writing this chronicle, I have a confession to make. On January 14, 1973, the Miami Dolphins broke my 14-year-old heart.
I had recently celebrated my birthday and Christmas, and both were filled with gifts covered in burgundy and gold. You see, I lived on the outer edge of the Washington, DC suburbs and was a passionate Washington Redskin fan. I adored the Over-the-Hill Gang and agreed with the oddsmakers that the ‘Skins would prevail in a close game and win the franchise’s first championship in 30 years.
Of course, in hindsight, it seems ludicrous that an undefeated team would come into Super Bowl VII as an underdog. Even Washington Coach George Allen said, “I can’t understand at all why we’re favored.”
There were reasons for that, however. Washington, at one point in the 1972 season, sported an 11-1 record, then lost their final two games after they had already clinched the NFC Eastern Division championship. They had done that against a stronger schedule than the Dolphins wound up playing through no fault of their own.
The best case made for a Redskins victory, though, was the two teams’ performance in the playoffs. You’ve read here how Miami came from behind and won two close games against Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Washington, however, had dominated in the playoffs, grinding up Green Bay 16-3 and blowing out the defending champion Dallas Cowboys 26-3 in the NFC Championship. The Redskins romp over the Cowboys was reminiscent of Dallas’ destruction of the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.
Sports Illustrated’s NFL scribe Tex Maule, who had picked the Baltimore Colts to win the AFC East over Miami in 1972, continued his cold streak with his Super Bowl prediction. “The clear advantage seems to lie with the Redskins,” he wrote. “Washington should win Super Bowl VII by at least 10 points and perhaps by as many as 21.” Only weathermen can make worse predictions than that and keep their jobs. Maule also called the coaching matchup between George Allen and Don Shula as “even.” History does not look very kindly on that analysis either.
Allen, though neither he or his team realized it at that time, had reached the peak of his career with the Redskins New Year’s Eve trouncing of Dallas. He would never win another NFL playoff game, and it would be ten years before the Redskins (coached by Joe Gibbs) would post another playoff win, culminating in their Super Bowl XVII win over Shula’s Dolphins.
Allen may have been the undoing of his team in the ramp-up to Super Bowl VII. He had his team on lockdown from the moment they stepped off the plane in California and grew more irritable, ranting about “distractions” as the game approached. For at least some of his players, Allen himself became their biggest distraction, with one of them telling Maule anonymously, “We should have left him (Allen) in Washington.”
The contrast between Allen, who said, “To win this game, I’d let you stick a knife in me and draw all my blood,” to Shula, who was calm, confident, and poised, was stark.
Shula summarized their differences this way, “I have great respect for George Allen but I just don’t believe in doing things the way he does. He believes in psychological warfare. It works for him,” Shula said. “I deal with my players as I would like to be dealt with as a player. I treat them more as adults.” He added, “I can’t visualize myself leading Larry Csonka in ‘Hail to the Dolphins.” That is hard to picture. Miami guard Bob Kuechenberg expressed his team’s quiet confidence, “Last year I wasn’t quite sure we were the best team in football, man for man. Now I’m positive we are.”
Shula and Allen had some shared history, dating back to Shula’s days coaching Baltimore when their primary rival changed from Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers to Allen’s Los Angeles Rams. In 1967, Shula’s Colts came into the final game of the regular season with a record of 11-0-2, facing Allen’s Rams, who stood 10-1-2. The Rams spanked the Colts in LA 34-10, not only ending Baltimore’s shot at an undefeated season but remarkably knocking them out of the playoffs despite a final record of 11-1-2.
There would be no spoiling this undefeated, perfect season for Shula’s Dolphins on this day.
The temperature at game time was 84 degrees, still the hottest Super Bowl in history, but the game got off to a cool start. Both teams played conservatively, like two heavyweight fighters feeling each other out. After each team had the ball twice and punted every time, Bob Griese, pain free according to him, got the Miami offense rolling. The Dolphins’ offense was at its best when Griese artfully mixed runs and passes, and he did so on the last series of the first quarter.
Jim Kiick, who got the start ahead of Mercury Morris, who was still fighting his bad ankle, had two runs to pick up a first down, then Griese connected with Paul Warfield on a pass for 18 yards. Two more running plays left the Dolphins with third-and-four at the Washington 28-yard line. Griese sent wide receiver Howard Twilley down the right side against Redskin cornerback Pat Fisher. Twilley turned Fisher inside out and caught Griese’s pass at the five-yard line, and dragged Fisher into the endzone with him for the game’s first score. A six-play, 63-yard drive had given Miami a 7-0 lead.
The second quarter settled back into a punting contest until the Redskins finally picked up a couple of first downs and move across midfield for the first time in the game. On third-and-three from the Dolphins’ 48-yard line, Washington quarterback Billy Kilmer, who had played a near-perfect game against Dallas two weeks earlier, made his first critical mistake. Under pressure from Bill Stanfill, Kilmer failed to see Nick Buoniconti lurking over the middle. Buoniconti stepped in front of the intended receiver, Larry Brown, to intercept Kilmer’s pass and return it 32 yards to the Washington 32-yard line with 1:51 left in the first half.
Given the opportunity to take clear control of the game, Miami took only five plays, with Kiick going in from one yard out to push the Dolphins’ lead out to 14-0 at halftime.
George Allen tried to rally his troops, telling them in the huddle before the second-half kickoff,
“We’ve got 30 minutes to live” (remember, he once said, “loosing is like death”), “We’ve talked about character; we’re going to see how much character every damn guy has here.”
His team responded, with Kilmer coming out throwing on the first series of the second half. After completing only one pass for eight yards to a wide receiver in the first half, Kilmer got both Charley Taylor and Roy Jefferson involved right away. Four completions on that drive and two short runs got the Redskins down to the Dolphins’ 17-yard line, but two incompletions and a sack by Manny Fernandez brought out the field goal team.
Washington kicker Curt Knight had connected on only 14 of 30 attempts during the regular season but had gone 7-7 in the playoffs. He reverted to form here, however, badly missing a 32-yard attempt.
After an exchange of punts, Miami threatened to put the game away. Seven consecutive runs moved the Dolphins down to the Redskins five-yard line. The most memorable one was Larry Csonka’s rumble through the majority of the Washington defense. Poor little Pat Fisher literally bounced off Csonka trying to tackle him, but he slowed him up enough for Jack Pardee and Brig Owens to catch him at the end of a 49-yard run. This was pure “Beast Mode” before Marshawn Lynch was even born.
Washington stayed (barely) alive when Brig Owens made a leaping interception in front of tight end Marv Fleming in the end zone to end the threat.
Another exchange of punts moved the game into the fourth quarter when the Redskins mounted their apparently last-gasp drive. They embarked on a methodical, time-consuming march from their 11 to Miami’s 10. On the 13th play of the drive, Kilmer found tight end Jerry Smith wide open in the back of the end zone. His pass, however, found the crossbar of the goalpost and fell incomplete. In 1972, the goalpost was at the goal line. It would be moved back the following season to cut down on teams settling for field goals, but that was too late to help Washington.
After that deflating play, Kilmer tried to force a pass to Taylor in the end zone. Lloyd Mumphord had him covered, and Jake Scott cut in front to intercept and return it all the way to the Redskins 48-yard line. The drive had consumed 7:18, nearly half of the fourth quarter. With 5:08 left to play, Miami again had the chance to lock up the victory.
Four running plays and a long incomplete pass left the Dolphins at the Washington 34. Shula sent in Garo Yepremian and the field goal unit. Miami owner Joe Robbie, down on the sideline, was caught on film glowing, saying, if Garo made the field goal, it would be 17-0, 17-0-the score and team record would match.
Instead, what followed was one of the most infamous plays in NFL history. Yepremian’s 42-yard field goal was blocked by the Redskins Bill Brundage, and the ball rolled back toward Garo. He picked it up and, bizarrely, tried to throw it with his right hand. Since Garo was left-handed, that did not go well at all. He lost his grip on the ball and batted it in the air, apparently unable to think of anything worse to do. Washington’s Mike Bass, a former teammate of Yepremian’s in Detroit, caught the ball and dashed 49 yards for a touchdown. NBC play-by-play broadcaster Curt Gowdy said, “What a kooky play that was. Garo lost his head and tried to pass.”
Suddenly, the Dolphins’ lead was cut to 14-7. The Redskins were harder to kill than a vampire.
George Allen, still with three time-outs in his possession, eschewed an onside kick. He decided to kick it away and trust his defense to hold Miami and get the ball back. His trust was well placed. Miami did pick up a first down, but two plays ending out of bounds still gave Washington 1:14 to work with after the Dolphins punted, albeit with no timeouts.
The No-Name Defense was not about to let this game get away. Kilmer threw two incomplete passes, then connected with Larry Brown for a four-yard loss, and was sacked by Stanfill on fourth down, a fitting end to the Redskins final hope. Miami had finally driven the stake through the heart of the Redskins.
Jake Scott won the game’s MVP award and the new car that went with it, but it was Dolphins defensive tackle Manny Fernandez who dominated the game with an amazing 17 tackles. Miami Herald sports editor Edwin Pope wrote, “Manny Fernandez…hugged the Redskin runners so often I thought they were engaged, except a guy doesn’t usually try to break his gal’s ribs before they’re married.” Fernandez could have complained about Scott’s award, but in typical Miami fashion, he said this about his teammate, “Big-Play Jake, we call him, and the award couldn’t have gone to a more deserving guy.”
Like much of the season, Miami’s 14-7 triumph in Super Bowl VII was not an artistic gem, but the Dolphins players and coaches continued not to be concerned with that. They had just earned $22,500 per man, lunch money for today’s players but a sum that nearly doubled many of the salaries then. Jim Kiick summed it up, “All year when the pressure was on, we’ve come through. That’s the mark of a championship team.”
No matter what it looked like, it was Perfect Redemption for Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins.
Coming Next: Part 25 – Fifty Years Later:
This chronicle concludes with the aftermath of Miami’s victory, a fast-forward to the 50th-anniversary celebration, and how I got over the broken heart of my youth and grew to admire the 1972 Dolphins.
You can follow me on Twitter @jimjfootball